We don’t govern by public opinion polls

I read this Op-Ed in the N&O yesterday about how we need to increase funding for early childhood education.  Honestly, we, really, really should.  Policy-wise this is a no-brainer– the benefits well exceed the costs.  Alas, the costs are now and the benefits are down the road.  And politicians?  Well, you know how long down the road they are looking.  And, you know, we might actually need taxes (heaven forbid) to pay for it.  The authors make their case with a recent advocacy poll:

Given that it is election season, perhaps the most compelling numbers in the poll are these: A majority of voters are more likely to vote for candidates who support early childhood education, including 73 percent of mothers, 57 percent of moderates and 53 percent of Independents. In fact, nearly a third of voters even said they would be much more likely to vote for a candidate who supported investments in early childhood education, with only 9 percent saying they would be less likely.

Now, I don’t doubt that’s true, but in the real electoral world, voters are going to care way more if there is a D or R in front of the candidate’s name.  Not to mention, where the candidate stands on abortion, taxes, guns, etc.

Also, there’s this:

Nearly three-quarters of North Carolina voters (71 percent) support greater federal investment in local early childhood education even if it increased the deficit in the short term but paid for itself in the long term by improving children’s education, health and economic situations.

Sure, poll respondents say they are willing to accept the short-term deficit increase (as well they should, just like any investment you pay upfront), but think about all the politicians railing against this policy for increasing the deficit!

The truth is, if only Democrats were in charge, we could get this policy, but despite what Republican voters say in the poll, there’s just not enough support in the Republican party.  Reminded me very much of a post by Hans Noel earlier this week on paid sick leave.  The gist– intensity matters, a lot:

What am I to make of the survey data Deng reports, that shows that 76 percent of Republicans in a survey support requiring employers to offer paid sick leave? In short, those are voters, who were asked about a policy in isolation, without much consideration of other policies or even any details.[1] What matters is not just what people want, but what they would prioritize. It’s not who likes a policy, but who intensely wants it. This survey shows preferences before politics gets involved. And no matter how idealistic we want to be, politics will get involved. The fact that large majorities want something might make us think it should be enacted, but that doesn’t mean it’s politically wise for Republicans to try to enact it…

So the angle on this survey should not be that this is a winner for Republicans. It probably isn’t.[2] The angle is something deeper. What are we to do when a majority wants something, but the minority gets its way? Here, that seems like an injustice. And maybe it is. On the other hand, a majority was not in favor of civil rights in the 1960s. A majority of both parties opposed civil rights legislation, and it stayed off the agenda for decades. Then, the Democratic coalition began to push out its segregationist elements and advocated for the policy. In the end, what matters in American democracy is not how many people want something. It’s how intensely the people who do want it want it, and how well organized they are. [emphases in original]

Now, some Republican elites really may want more pre-K funding.  But not enough of them and not strongly enough and that is (unfortunately) far more important than an opinion poll that tells us that a solid majority of Republican identifiers support it.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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